WASHINGTON // It's not a happy time for Republicans seeking the White House.
Ahead of the Super Tuesday contests, they find themselves on the defensive over birth control, embarrassed by Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, and tripped up by subjects bearing little relation to the day-to-day concerns of Americans. All the while, President Barack Obama's ratings are climbing.
There's still a long way to go, for sure, but this is not how Republican leaders had pictured things.
Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment about saying no evil about a fellow Republican is in shreds in what's become a scorched-earth primary contest.
Contenders for the Republican nomination are trying to win the White House with a gloomy economic message, while Mr Obama seeks to project reassuring optimism amid fresh signs of a growing — if still fragile — economy.
Some Republican pundits seem to be already bracing for an Mr Obama re-election victory, even though the general election Day is eight months away.
George Will, a conservative columnist, has raised the spectre of a repeat of the 1964 race, when "conservatives got their way" and the Republicans chose Barry Goldwater as its nominee. He lost in a landslide to incumbent President Lyndon B Johnson.
In a weekend column, Mr Will wrote that neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum - the two leading GOP contenders - "seems likely to be elected". Instead, he suggests that conservatives focus more energy on retaking control of the Senate and retaining a majority in the House of Representatives.
Peggy Noonan, a speech writer for Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, recently wrote that "the Republican nominee will emerge so bloodied his victory will hardly be worth having; the Republicans are delving into areas so extreme and so off point that by the end Mr Obama will look like the moderate".
Veteran Republican consultant Charles Black, a top political aide to Senator John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and now a Romney backer, said current expressions of frustration are standard fare for when "a competitive primary race is going, when the negatives for your candidate are being highlighted, and when the other party's nominee is getting a free ride".
"For anybody on any side to throw in the towel now, they're going against both data and history," Mr Black said.
Super Tuesday, when 10 states vote, could scramble the deck again, but for now Mr Romney and Mr Santorum are running far ahead of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian Rep Ron Paul of Texas - both in poll ratings and in the battle for delegates to the national Republican convention. There also is growing consensus among Republican insiders that Romney eventually will prevail and clinch the nomination.
A new poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center suggested the brutal nomination battle is helping Mr Obama solidify support among Democrats. The survey found 49 per cent of Democrats say that as they learn more about the Republican candidates, their impression of Mr Obama is getting better - up from 36 per cent in December. Just 26 per cent of Republicans say their impression of the field has improved as they have learnt more about the candidates, largely unchanged since December.
Mr Obama's rivals have hit many potholes in this contest.
Mr Santorum got tripped up by suggesting that John F Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston on the separation of church and state makes him want to "throw up", and for making birth control a central campaign issue when polls show most Americans are more concerned about issues like the economy and jobs.
And Mr Romney, who many Republicans view as too moderate, keeps putting his foot in his mouth by saying things that unintentionally point to his enormous personal wealth and suggest that his world is vastly different from that of ordinary Americans, especially when he talks about money and cars.
Added to all this was Mr Limbaugh's recent branding of a Georgetown University law school student as a "slut" and "a prostitute" for publicly advocating mandatory contraceptive insurance coverage for women. With advertisers fleeing, Mr Limbaugh issued a public apology over the weekend. He apologised again, on the air, yesterday.
Despite the apology, widespread outrage for the remarks remained, and sent Republicans scrambling to insist that Limbaugh was an "entertainer" - and not an official or leader, as Democrats take glee in implying.
It was just one more headache Republicans certainly didn't need.
"People may be disappointed in the fact that Romney didn't put this together sooner," said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant. But, he added, it's only the first week of March.
Mr Galen, who once worked as a Gingrich aide but is on the sidelines in the presidential race, suggested that current anxiety "is expressing itself now, but once we settle on a nominee, I think we'll get back in line."
As to Reagan's 11th Commandment that Republican candidates not speak badly of one another? It certainly is not in effect this election cycle.
But then it was not in most of the previous Republican primary seasons, either. In fact Reagan quickly broke it himself when he blasted incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 for moving to give the Panama Canal to Panama. Almost every primary since then has seen harsh words spoken by Republican rivals about another.
Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who worked for President Bill Clinton, said Mr Santorum and Mr Romney "have both failed to talk about the bread-and-butter issues that affect the American people".
Still, Mr Schoen said Obama's team shouldn't breathe easy just yet - since recent polls show the president holds a narrow single-digit lead over Mr Romney as the prospective nominee. Mr Schoen also said some polls suggest "that a majority of Americans, a narrow majority, would like to see another president".